During the early to middle stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, national-level responses to control the spread of the virus became a means to compare nations and regions from a geopolitical perspective, particularly between the West and Asia. The results were the further recognition of fundamental differences in ideologies between the West and Asia, be they political or societal.
Generally speaking, Asian populations were more understanding of and compliant with government policy on lockdowns, travel bans and vaccinations — for example, Vietnam’s policies were trusted by the public, while Malaysia has a vaccination rate of 83%, nearly 20 percentage points more than the US. In the West, there was far more uproar over constrained individual rights, to the point that mask-wearing and vaccinations became extremely divisive topics.
This divide between the West and Asia (and the US and China, in particular) was so significant because it compounded an already extant paradigm growing in Asia: that Western approaches and prescriptions are no longer suited to Asia’s shifting needs and contexts.
However, Westerners are likely unaware of just how much of an impact their individualistic response to the pandemic — which led to hundreds of thousands of excess deaths — has had on international relations and Western geopolitical perception. We are not simply progressing into a post-pandemic era; we are progressing into a post-Western world.
The West’s soft power — particularly that of the US, which was already being questioned — has been badly damaged by the pandemic. As international relations scholar Stephen Walt noted, one of the foundations of American strength, in addition to its military power, economic heft and cultural superiority, was a perception of American competence: that, in general, the US knows what it is doing. Even if the political system is gridlocked, the institutions and the American system could largely be trusted to determine a path out of a crisis.
The pandemic has significantly undermined this perception, as the world watched the American political system fail its population while individuals obstructed the protection of collective welfare. As a result, American political institutions and unfettered individual rights have been called into question more than ever, given that they were unable to adapt as robustly as Asian collectivist-based equivalents in this particular crisis.
We also witnessed another trend during the pandemic: Western politicians, frustrated at being clearly outperformed in response to the pandemic by Asian nations and angry at their diminished leverage in a world marked by restrictions, opted to revoke participation in certain international bodies in favour of systems where they could maintain primacy.
For example, the White House revoked funding for the World Health Organization; prominent politicians called for the World Trade Organization to be abolished; and the Trump administration, fearing the electoral consequences of its failure to control the pandemic, notoriously relied on aggressive and confrontational rhetoric about China, trying to force a decoupling that few wanted. Yet the pandemic has been far from being China’s “Chernobyl”, as the Financial Times suggested when the disease first emerged.
Unfortunately, these are trends that we are seeing continued in the post-pandemic landscape. First, the Western influence in certain multilateral organisations has become increasingly problematic, such as the formation of Aukus — a trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and the US with the sole aim of arming Australia with nuclear submarines in a move against China — or most recently, and devastatingly, Nato’s inability to diplomatically resolve the Russia-Ukraine war before it began.
Second, the desire of the West to lay blame for the pandemic at China’s doorstep, and to delay the release of vaccine technology (declared a “vaccine apartheid”), had racial overtones that were not missed by the rest of the world. The anti-China rhetoric is being continued today by the Biden administration. Recently, the White House had to scramble to produce a statement explaining President Joe Biden’s alarming remarks about defending Taiwan militarily — comments which demonstrate the normalisation of Western geopolitical belligerence.
The American journalist James Fallows noted how the US’ aggressive attitude towards China helped worsen the Covid-19 pandemic, both in the US and globally. Despite tensions elsewhere in their relationship, the US and China had maintained a close relationship over public health, working together to help combat the Ebola outbreak in 2014. In addition, the US had observers stationed throughout China to monitor potential outbreaks: a concession granted by Beijing as they too wanted to benefit from these observations and technical expertise.
This is what so many imagined was the purpose of multilateral cooperation. Yet these observers left last year and were never replaced. Nor was there any interest on the part of the US government to help Beijing manage the potential crisis. As Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani recently pointed out, since the onset of the pandemic, there has been a general decoupling between the US and China with regard to science and technology, and this is something the world simply cannot afford.
These are geopolitical trends that Asia — and in particular, Asean, as the most stable union of non-interference in the world — should learn from. It is imperative that leaders find ways to de-escalate tensions and build a truly universal global system, one that is not fixated on the desire or belief in the West that it must lead the world and further Western supremacy. Neutrality allows for facilitation of peace. This is not to deny that internationally condemnable acts take place, but it is a diplomatic truth that staking out alignment with one side will cost opportunities for mediation.
The upcoming G20 summit in Indonesia — the first in Asean — is a perfect opportunity for Asean nations to demonstrate to the world that cultural acceptance, non-interference, neutrality and — above all — peace can pervade a diverse bloc. Indeed, a post-pandemic world will be one with many different powers: China, India, Indonesia, Russia, Europe, Asean, Nigeria, Brazil and the US. Tensions will undoubtedly exist between these different countries, and the boundaries of their influence will be contested. All countries are going to need to determine ways to mutually coexist with one another.
But there are also significant global problems that can only be managed through close cooperation. The pandemic is clearly one of them: Novel diseases can emerge anywhere, and the world needs to commit to strategies that monitor potential outbreaks and combat them when they arise. Other global problems requiring global cooperation are peacekeeping — which has failed miserably and tragically in Russia-Ukraine — climate change, and managing the global economy. But if Western countries continue to claim the moral high ground and refuse to engage with other powers, even those they have severe disagreements with, then these global problems will be unsolved and global society will suffer — this is starkly evident with the Nato-Russian relationship.
This cannot be repeated, whether regarding a new pandemic, a potential economic crisis, the outbreak of war or any other global shock. The Covid-19 pandemic shows that the global system falls flat on its face when confronted with a global problem. The next generation needs to ensure that it does not do so the next time there is a global shock.
Chandran Nair is the founder and CEO of the Global Institute for Tomorrow. This article is the final one in a series on key areas in which Asean, as part of a regional and global system, needs to consider transforming itself if it is to learn from the pandemic, identify future opportunities and achieve social change for the better.